Friday, June 23, 2017

Deal Breakers

We all know why relationships fail. We know all about the several kinds of abuse—physical, emotional, verbal, sexual—and we imagine that, high on the list of deal breakers is: adultery. Let’s not forget the possibility that your beloved turns out to be a pathological liar, a criminal or a drug addict. He might have some truly unsavory habits—like a fascination with child pornography. Or he might chronically keep the toilet seat up.

Thus, we have been taught to think of it in terms of drama. When relationships fail we assume that something dramatic happened, something that can make its way to the small screen in a movie of the week.

But, life is not all about drama. Or, at least, I hope that yours isn’t. Life is about little things, about small stuff that can make or break an observation. So says Judith Newman in a recent article. In most cases Newman is talking about how a woman understands in a blinding flash of insight that she must exit her relationship. Perhaps she is talking about tipping points. Perhaps she is talking about something as gauche as calling your beloved, in a moment of passion, by someone else’s name.

Newman is not talking about abuse and she is not even talking about personal habits—like bad personal hygiene-- that make an individual insufferable. She writes:

I’m not talking about the kind of differences that make life with someone clearly incompatible: smoking, different concepts about hygiene, profound religious or political schisms. I mean the differences that may, from the outside, look like mere quirks—but turn out to be anything but. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that small discrepancies in style can indicate much larger ones in substance.

To be fair, Newman does not offer a grand theory about why this should be. She does not say that the women should or should not do what they are doing. She accepts their actions and respects them. It’s perfectly reasonable and perfectly fine with me. One does best to suspend one’s critical and theory-making faculties long enough to examine the evidence, dispassionately and objectively. And to recognize that, in the world of dating and mating, whatever makes sense to you is good enough for me. 

In her own case, Newman walked out on the love of her life over a movie. In Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, a man tells his friend that it is better to murder his mistress than to risk her exposing their affair to his wife.

Newman’s paramour found the reasoning cogent. Newman ended the relationship:

I left because the man who had me as his mistress believed a man who murdered his mistress acted rationally. Call me old-fashioned, but that was a deal-breaker.

But, in most cases she is not talking about something quite that profound. She received messages from women who have broken up with men because of ridiculous tube socks, bow ties, lame tattoos and ugly gym bags.

Perhaps we are dealing with a habit that represents the tip of an iceberg… something small that signifies something much larger. Heck, it might be taste in books. In the interest of gender equity, Newman offers a man’s response:

“For me, the horror is discovering that an adult I’m interested in is a huge fan of Harry Potter,” says my friend Spencer. “I mean, go to the movies, if you must. Read the books to your kids.  Go to Harry Potter Land at Universal, see Daniel Radcliffe naked in Equus, anything, just don’t gush about what great literature these novels are if you’re over 21.”  Recently Spencer met a woman who seemed great for him in every way—until the HP subject popped up.  She’d read all seven.  “I wish she’d just lied to me,” he sighed.

And then there are repugnant verbal tics. They are not repugnant because they are obscene, but because they are so completely out of context:

Similarly, there are those were entirely sunk by using or misusing words repeatedly. “Ciao” turns out to be, for some, a devastating irritant. Ditto the promiscuous use of LOL. And “dude.” As one woman put it, “If I wanted to hear ‘dude’ in every other sentence I’d date 13 year olds.” Another friend told me she had to break up with someone when she couldn’t get him to stop saying “ekcetera ekcetera ekcetera.” Was she dating Yul Brynner, I wondered, but then I discovered it was the mispronunciation that set her teeth on edge. “Why was it so hard to learn ETcetera?  WHY?” she asked.

Newman’s friend Lynn Snowden Picket has her own list of deal breakers:

Her deal breaker?  “A man who ordered a crèche of wine instead of a carafe, and when I told him he’d just ordered his wine in Jesus’s manger he said, `Oh, I’m a writer, I play with words.’” She fired him as her date not so much for the wrong word, but for being a pretentious git.

Why the concern with restaurant manners? Try this: if she continues to date him and finds herself out in company with him, she risks being mortified by his behavior. No one really wants to be attached to someone who is going to make her look bad in front of family, friends or colleagues. It’s all about status and standing, about prestige and good behavior. Most women will not risk being humiliated by a date or a lover or a husband who likes to pretend that he is a teenager.

And then there are mistakes that people make in bed. This one is NSFW:

“I was with this new man, and we were having a fantastic time,” said my friend Lily.  I was really losing myself in the moment when he looked up from what he was doing and said, “You likee?” And that was it. I knew he would never be in my bed again.” At first I thought Lily was being ridiculous; after all, wasn’t it nice that the guy was trying to please her? Then I remembered an incident in my own life when, at a distinctly inopportune time, the new man I was with shouted, “Yee-haw!” Maybe this would have been ok if he were a cowboy.  He was a plastic surgeon.

Call these epiphanies, moments where a woman recognizes that the man she is in bed with is not really there… that he is recollecting a past experience or reliving a prior casual encounter. It’s roughly like calling her by the wrong name.

Sometimes, the deal breakers involve gender identity. A man who does not do manly things can be dismissed for being insufficiently manly. What does or does not count as manly changes with geography:

Often these deal-breakers are critical signifiers of masculinity or femininity.  “I won’t date a man who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift,” says Kristen K. To those who grew up in cities, where cars are not really erotic symbols of much, this makes no sense. But Kristen, who grew up in Kentucky, was adamant that a man who couldn’t drive a stick shift was not a real man. (To me, that position would be taken by a man who didn’t know how to litigate, but then I grew up in Scarsdale.).

Surely, this is far better than embracing or rejecting a prospective lover or even a spouse on the grounds of hotness or coolness… depending on your age.

So, Newman’s message is to sweat the small stuff. If you are thinking about spending a lot of time with someone, it’s a good idea to be on the same page, or better, for both to be present to the relationship:

Taste matters. Style matters. And sometimes they matter more over the years, not less. To those of you on a first date to that Broadway musical that makes your heart soar:  If he’s sighing and looking at his watch, pay attention.

It's not so much that he's bored with the play-- most Broadway musicals are boring-- but that he is bored being with you. If he cannot suck it up to enjoy sharing an experience with you, look elsewhere.


James said...

Who in the world knows what love really is? There is a fine line between lovable and disgusting. It's really really hard to fall out of love, but it's even harder to fall back into love. Kind of like politics, it's really hard to lose the trust of the people, but it's even harder if not nearly impossible to get it back. This I think is why Love has been left in the hands of the poets. Should we do the same with politics?
Well Ireland did a long time ago and they had to kill the poets, so who knows?

JPL17 said...

It's not so much that he's bored with the play -- most Broadway musicals are boring -- but that he is bored being with you. If he cannot suck it up to enjoy sharing an experience with you, look elsewhere.

Stuart, can you allow an exception for Cats? Please? (It's not that I was bored for 2-1/2 hours; it was more like being water-boarded for 2-1/2 hours.)

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Yes, "Cats" is indeed terrible. I second the request for an exception.

David Foster said...

A rather different viewpoint/experience, from screenwriter/blogger Robert Avrech:

David Foster said...

For the Avrech post, try this link instead:

James said...

I love Avrech's friday thingy.

Ares Olympus said...

Definitely confusing, and it seems more like rationalization than anything, but we all like to reasons for our decisions, even if they're not 100% true. Perhaps truth is overrated, or too hard. And can preferences ever be true or false?

Jung would say a lot about this, including things like we're attracted to people not like us, but once you're with someone over time those differences become troublesome. So neat and messy people might attract, but unless they find a way to negotiate fairly, they probably won't be able to live peacefully together very long.

And we all change in ways over time, so even if someone "compliments" our weaknesses in the past, that same difference may become a hindrance to our own maturing later.

And in complex ways, so if you want to be different that from the past, sometimes habits with a certain person are so ingrained, you literally NEED a different person to play off from to grow in a new way. Relationship with parents can be like that. A teen can offer dozens of rationalizations on why their parents are annoying, and it might take two decade later before they can see past those, and see their own fears leading the judgments.

Sam L. said...

My understanding it that it's the little niggling irritations that just grow and grow and grow that are the killers.

James said...

JPL 17 and IAC,
When you have a sudden urge to gnaw out your own eyes you know you should not have gone.

Anonymous said...

Well no wonder you americans have so much bloody divorce if this kind of small shit is all it takes to pull the plug! Wow! (or yee-ha!!)